S.E.C. Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal
Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street powerhouse, was accused of securities fraud in a civil lawsuit filed Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which claims the bank created and sold a mortgage investment that was secretly intended to fail.
The move was the first time that regulators had taken action against a Wall Street deal that helped investors capitalize on the collapse of the housing market.
The suit also named Fabrice Tourre, a vice president at Goldman who helped create and sell the investment.
In a statement, Goldman called the commission’s accusations “completely unfounded in law and fact” and said it would “vigorously contest them and defend the firm and its reputation.”
The focus of the S.E.C. case, an investment vehicle called Abacus 2007-AC1, was one of 25 such vehicles that Goldman created so the bank and some of its clients could bet against the housing market. Those deals, which were the subject of an article in The New York Times in December, initially protected Goldman from losses when the mortgage market disintegrated and later yielded profits for the bank.
As the Abacus portfolios in the S.E.C. case plunged in value, a prominent hedge fund manager made money from his bets against certain mortgage bonds, while investors lost more than $1 billion.
According to the complaint, Goldman created Abacus 2007-AC1 in February 2007 at the request of John A. Paulson, a prominent hedge fund manager who earned an estimated $3.7 billion in 2007 by correctly wagering that the housing bubble would burst. Mr. Paulson is not named in the suit.
Goldman told investors that the bonds would be chosen by an independent manager. In the case of Abacus 2007-AC1, however, Goldman let Mr. Paulson select mortgage bonds that he believed were most likely to lose value, according to the complaint.
Goldman then sold the package to investors like foreign banks, pension funds and insurance companies, which would profit only if the bonds gained value. The European banks IKB and ABN Amro and other investors lost more than $1 billion in the deal, the commission said.
“Goldman wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio,” Robert Khuzami, the director of the commission’s enforcement division, said in a written statement.
The lawsuit could be a sign of a revitalized Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been criticized for early missteps in assessing the causes of the financial crisis. The agency appears to be tracing the mortgage pipeline all the way from the companies like Countrywide Financial that originated home loans to the raucous trading floors that dominate Wall Street’s profit machine.
At a conference in New Orleans on Friday, Mr. Khuzami indicated that he was scrutinizing other deals involving mortgage securities. “We’re looking at a wide range of products,” he said at a news conference. “If we see securities with similar profiles, we’ll look at them closely.”
Shares of Goldman Sachs plunged more than 10 percent in just the first half-hour of trading after the suit was announced Friday morning. They closed down 13 percent, at $160.70, wiping away more than $10 billion of the company’s market value.
Investors sold other bank stocks, as well, as rumors swirled about which other firms might become embroiled in the commission’s investigation. Next to Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank’s American shares had the steepest decline, falling 7 percent.
Goldman issued a second statement after the market closed saying that the firm had lost money on the deal in the S.E.C. case and that it provided investors with extensive disclosure on the deal. The firm said the losses in the deal came from the overall collapse of the mortgage market, not from the way the deal was structured.
The accusations amount to a black eye for the once-untouchable Goldman Sachs, a money machine that is the epicenter of Wall Street power. For decades, its platinum reputation has attracted top investors and stock underwriting deals.
Several of its former chief executives have gone on to high public office, among them Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former Treasury secretary, and Jon Corzine, the former New Jersey governor. (Henry Paulson and John Paulson are not related.)
In recent months, Goldman has been defiant in the face of criticism, repeatedly defending its actions in the mortgage market, including its own bets against it. In a letter published last week in Goldman’s annual report, the bank rebutted criticism that it had created, and sold to its clients, mortgage-linked securities that it had little confidence in.
“We certainly did not know the future of the residential housing market in the first half of 2007 any more than we can predict the future of markets today,” Goldman wrote. “We also did not know whether the value of the instruments we sold would increase or decrease.”
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